What is it about India?’ I’ve been asked a few times recently. I’m not too sure why, but it’s certainly a question on people’s lips.
It got me thinking about the visits, the work, the relationship with the country and through that the relationship with Delhi – my usual entry point to the vastness of India. What was it that actually brought me here? Where did this begin? What kinds of connections to place develop, emerge, get reinforced through this?
So this post is some preliminary thoughts/reflections on all this.
What brought us here?
As I regularly tell people who ask, the first trip to India (was it really 1989? Maybe 1990?) was searching for Gandhi. For me, the search was one for my PhD topic at the time – the relevance of Gandhian ideas of small-scale, village level independence, non-violent social change and sustainable futures. In the early days, I was trying to understand this in the context of Gandhi’s relevance for environmental movements in the West. The movements were about non-violence, but what did it actually mean? In the west, we wanted sustainable futures, but how were these to be shaped – what is the relationship between means and ends? These were (and still are) important questions to be considered.
So I came to India that first trip in search of the mythologised Gandhian way. A search that, for me, is somewhat unfinished business – my whole professional career has been focused on support for small-scale initiatives (as both a logical focus and also a pathway for the future), non-violent social change and pathways for sustainable futures, though now it’s less focused on the ‘lessons for the West’ and more on the South Asian region.
Where did this all begin?
Actually I can remember thinking about this stuff, or variations of it, from about year 9 in high school. I can remember the geography teacher who introduced the concept of, in those days ‘undevelopment’ and small scale, peasant-based agriculture in Asia. I remember the room at my high school (upstairs in the old building, at the front and half-way along – I was sitting in the second row from the door, about two thirds of the way along the row towards the back).
But it really crystalised during my tertiary studies in sociology – doing subjects on rural society and world agricultural systems. In fact my lecturer in these two subjects was one of Australia’s few rural sociologists in those days and he introduced me to ways of understanding these kinds of things. He didn’t, however (in those days) think about the environmental angle. After many discussions (and a couple of years after I completed my degree and Masters and after I had started in academia), he and I along with another academic put together the first-ever book which looked at the intersection point of sustainability and agriculture in Australia from the perspective of people, communities and sustainability rather than technical crop/soil/nitrogen formulas.
My studies both as a student and as an academic highlighted the fact that environmental problems are issues of society, politics and economics (therefore rights, inequality, beliefs, etc) rather than technical ecological issues. This was quite radical in those days (and still is in many quarters) and I was particularly interested in looking at how social movements/people search for alternative futures. Hence my connection to Gandhi and India, and the lessons for Western social movements.
I completed my Masters and one of my supervisors (a South Indian who worked on non-violence and Gandhian change) and I had lots of discussions about continuing this. So I started a PhD which was Gandhian focused, but which was focused on his contemporary relevance to Western environmental social movements. Hence the first trip to India.
But things change. The more I studied Gandhi and the more I experienced India, the more I was drawn back to that thinking from high school.
My Indian supervisor moved to another University and I was consequently being taken into directions I didn’t necessarily want to go – new social movement theory coming out of Germany (which was interesting, but not quite where I was wanting to go).
As this was happening, I was also drawn to work on protected areas – national parks and the like – which was going through a change in conceptualisation to start to bring local people into the management equation. In the old days (they still exist actually, worryingly) local people would be thrown out of an area when it became a national park. This would – overnight usually as troops moved in and forcibly moved people out – cut the connections of local communities to their cultures, landscapes, their forests, seas, deserts or wherever. It was the ultimate in imposing a set of ideas about conservation, coming from the Western scientific paradigm, which saw people not part of conservation and local people, in particular, as being a problem (rather than a solution).
As these ideas started to change globally, conservation agencies started to think about local people’s participation in decision-making and how they (local people and conservation agencies) could benefit. The problem was nobody had too much of a clue what to do about it because conservation was for ecologists and scientists – we social scientists, anthropologists, political scientists weren’t part of the equation, until the conceptual frameworks started to shift.
So the possibility began to emerge for a PhD looking at these kinds of questions and, given my connections to India and the fact that India was a flash-point in some of these issues (and also had a long history in trying to deal with people and their environments as well as having a cultural and religious connection to protection and conservation), it seemed the logical place to focus. And that I did.
I had been working in India doing all kinds of other things – reports on ecotourism, reports on tiger protection, reports on protected area management and so on – so I was building layers upon layers of experiences, connections, relationships and senses of place.
And I’ve been doing this, almost yearly, since 1989 or 1990. Sometimes for a couple of weeks, sometimes for a couple of months, sometimes for 6 months, sometimes for years on end (now), a series of connections that have so many layers and so many experiences.
What are the kinds of connections to place?
It’s hard to know where to start. But here is a first draft – keep an eye out for other posts because it’s something that is exercising my thoughts at the moment:
- smells. There are times when you get transported back years with the smell of a dal, or the mist as you come out of the apartment on a foggy winter morning, or come out of the airport in Delhi after a few weeks away, or be in a tiger reserve’s forests. I actually think the smells really embedded in the experience, consistently, though are a particular dal, and the smell of a winter’s morning in Delhi. And even now, when I’m back home, I will, every now and then, pick out a book I bought in India from the bookshelf, open it and smell it. It has a smell of India.
- And that dal smell translates to a taste as well. There is a particular dal and combination of spices that are from the Punjab and they are especially memorable, taking me to various accommodation places in jungles, field trips or cheap accommodation anywhere in the north of India. I can get close to replicating it when I’m back home in Australia if I have spices from India that are fresh, but I can’t really get to the total package of the experience from there – I need to be in the north of India somewhere, doing something…
- sounds. The other day things were silent and I really really noticed it. Not silent for long mind you, but silent. What’s that, I thought. Then I realised…Beyond the 30 seconds of silence, there is a nice sound to the calling of the various wallahs as they come through the colony – rubbish, fruit, vegetables, coconuts for juice, rubber recycling etc. Even if they start at 7am. And I also like the sounds of Delhi’s crows, squirrels and langurs moving about.
- Engaging in conversations with Delhi-wallahs. I now have plenty of shared experience to discuss with people – be they auto-wallahs, friends or people in shops/on the streets.
- familiar sights. As I’ve written previously, not much surprises or shocks me anymore. And the sights become an opportunity to share thoughts with Delhi-wallahs.
- familiar people. I’ve got to the stage where I now bump into people and we have conversations. Also, more smiles and more ‘good morning/afternoon/evening sir’ in my movements (often with taxi-wallahs, cleaners, sweepers, shop owners, chowkidars rather than the residents).
- a sense of continuity and change. I get a much better sense of the continuity and change of the city (and the country) now, in ways that I can understand at one level, but which will only become truly apparent once I leave for a bit I suspect. I now have the capacity to reflect, to look back and ‘remember when…’ (something I have been doing a bit lately actually – remembering the Delhi of past times.
- other ways which I have absolutely no idea how to explain: a quick glimpse of something takes me back to a previous time or the reality of everyday life for Delhiites; the mist rising in Lodhi gardens in winter plugs me into playing soccer and cricket with Anders and Gena; the living of life in public; the sugarcane and the delicious jagri that comes from it when in Haryana (or just getting sweets form the market here); cyclists riding stiff-backed on black cycles; women riding side-saddle on cycles or motorbikes; multiple generations picnicking in the parks – all these things and more.
There are more things to come, but not now – some more reflection and some more sustained writing is required.
But here is a start…